Woodward and All the President’s Men (2010 Edition)
a serious journalist, the Washington
Woodward now makes a very fine living as chief gossip-monger of the
governing class. Early on in his career, along with Carl
Bernstein, his partner at the time, Woodward confronted power.
Today, by relentlessly exalting Washington trivia, he flatters
power. His reporting does not inform. It titillates.
new Woodward book, Obama’s
is a guaranteed blockbuster. It’s out this week, already
causing a stir, and guaranteed to be forgotten the week after
dropping off the bestseller lists. For good reason: when
it comes to substance, any book written by Woodward has about as much
heft as the latest potboiler penned by the likes of James Patterson
or Tom Clancy.
in 2002, for example, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq,
Woodward treated us to Bush
at War. Based
on interviews with unidentified officials close to President George
W. Bush, the book offered a portrait of the
president-as-resolute-war-leader that put him in a league with
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But the book’s
real juice came from what it revealed about events behind the
scenes. “Bush’s war cabinet is riven with
feuding,” reported the Times of
London, which credited Woodward with revealing “the furious
arguments and personal animosity” that divided Bush’s
course, the problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that
folks on the inside didn’t play nice with one another.
No, the problem was that the president and his inner circle committed
a long series of catastrophic errors that produced an unnecessary and
grotesquely mismanaged war. That war has cost the country
dearly -- although the people who engineered that catastrophe, many
of them having pocketed handsome advances on their forthcoming
memoirs, continue to manage quite well, thank you.
judge by the publicity blitzkrieg announcing the arrival of Obama’s
your local bookstore,
big news out of Washington is that, even today, politics there
remains an intensely competitive sport, with the participants,
whether in anger or frustration, sometimes speaking ill of one
news reports indicate, Woodward has updated his script from 2002.
The characters have different names, but the plot remains the same.
Talk about jumping the shark.
we learn that Obama political adviser David Axelrod doesn’t
fully trust Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. National
security adviser James Jones, a retired Marine general, doesn’t
much care for the likes of Axelrod, and will say so behind his
back. Almost everyone thinks Richard Holbrooke, chief State
Department impresario of the AfPak portfolio, is a jerk. And --
stop the presses -- when under the influence of alcohol, General
David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan,
to use the word “f**ked.” These are the sort of
shocking revelations that make you a headliner on the Sunday morning
on what we have learned so far from those select few provided with
advance copies of the book -- mostly reporters for the Post
New York Times who,
for whatever reason, seem happy to serve as its shills -- Obama’s
hints of another story, the significance of which seems to have
theme of that story is not whether Dick likes Jane, but whether the
Constitution remains an operative document. The Constitution
explicitly assigns to the president the role of commander-in-chief.
Responsibility for the direction of American wars rests with him.
According to the principle of civilian control, senior military
officers advise and execute, but it's the president who decides.
That's the theory, at least. Reality turns out to be
considerably different and, to be kind about it, more complicated.
President Obama to Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates regarding Afghanistan: "I'm not doing 10 years...
I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion
you, Mr. President? Don’t be so sure.
affirms what we already suspected about the decision-making process
that led up to the president’s announcement
at West Point in December 2009 to prolong and escalate the war.
Bluntly put, the Pentagon gamed the process to exclude any
possibility of Obama rendering a decision not to its liking.
surge: 20,000 troops? Or 30,000 troops? Or 40,000
troops? Only the most powerful man in the world -- or
Goldilocks contemplating three bowls of porridge -- could handle a
decision like that. Even as Obama opted for the middle course,
the real decision had already been made elsewhere by others: the war
in Afghanistan would expand
then there’s this
from the estimable General David Petraeus: "I don't think
you win this war,” Woodward quotes the field commander as
saying. “I think you keep fighting... This is the kind of fight
we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."
we confront a series of questions to which Woodward (not to mention
the rest of Washington) remains steadfastly oblivious. Why
fight a war that even the general in charge says can’t be won?
What will the perpetuation of this conflict cost? Who
will it benefit? Does the ostensibly most powerful nation in
the world have no choice but to wage permanent war? Are there
no alternatives? Can Obama shut down an unwinnable war now
about to enter its tenth year? Or is he -- along with the rest
of us -- a prisoner of war?
Obama has repeatedly stated that in July 2011 a withdrawal of U. S.
troops from Afghanistan will commence. No one quite knows
exactly what that means. Will the withdrawal be symbolic?
General Petraeus has already made it abundantly
clear that he will entertain nothing more. Or will July
signal that the Afghan War -- and by extension the Global War on
Terror launched nine years ago -- is finally coming to an end?
now and next summer attentive Americans will learn much about how
national security policy is actually formulated and who is really in
charge. Just don’t expect Bob Woodward to offer any
enlightenment on the subject.
J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at
Boston University. His new book is Washington
Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
2010 Andrew J. Bacevich
article originally appeared in TomDispatch.com without the images.